Maldives struggling with infant democracy

Two years after becoming a multi-party democracy a political struggle between the president and the opposition-dominated parliament has thrown the country into political deadlock
Balaji Chandramohan
30 September 2010

The Maldives are situated in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean. Traditionally, all great powers that aspired to control the Indian Ocean have sought a base there – Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The southernmost island of the Maldives, the Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II. Thus, it is hardly surprising that several regional powers, including Sri Lanka, India, China and Pakistan have started separate mediation efforts to resolve the emerging political crisis. However, given their longstanding strategic interests in the atoll state, the United States have called for an international approach to address the issue.

The roots of the present political crisis go back to the 2009 parliamentary election when the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) led by former president Gayoom managed to secure a slim majority of parliamentary seats with the help of the People’s Alliance (PA) and some independents. President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) won only 28 seats and the support of four independent MPs in the 77-member Parliament.

In the Maldivian multi-party system, the president picks his cabinet and each nomination must be approved by parliament. Parliament also has the power to remove the president through a no-confidence vote. Although the oppositional DRP gained control of the legislature it fell short of a two-third majority needed to vote the president out of office. At the same time, President Nasheed cannot dismiss the assembly until it completes its full five-year term. The outcome has been a political deadlock.

The Maldives adopted its first constitution on 22 December 1932, since when the country was initially ruled as a constitutional monarchy. A republic was established on 1 January 1953 but it was short-lived and monarchy was restored on 21 August 1953. A second republic was proclaimed on 11 November 1968. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became its second president ten years later and held power until the decisive October 2008 elections when Mohammed Nasheed won the presidency. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was considered as an oppressive ruler with a record of being Asia’s longest serving head of state having ruled Maldives for thirty consecutive years.

The crisis has its roots in the Maldivian constitution (pdf) adopted in 2008. Since then, the country’s political structure has been based on a presidential system of governance with a strong parliament to ensure checks and balances. However, this system becomes problematic when - as is currently the case - the opposition controls the parliament. It allows the opposition to obstruct core functions of the executive, such as raising taxes and providing subsidies. This has created a feud between the legislature and the executive.

The crisis reached its climax on June 29, 2010 with the resignation of 13 members of the cabinet. The reason cited is somewhat new in any parliamentary democracy as it is attributed to ‘working problems with the 77-member opposition-controlled parliament'. However, the ministers were re-appointed at the insistence of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse Rajapaksa, who undertook a one-day goodwill visit to Maldives on July 7, 2010. The government and the opposition agreed, in the presence of President Rajapaksa, to constitute a committee of six members of the parliament to address the political problems in the Maldives, yet the fissure is bound to continue – hence the crisis.

The present situation has not gone unnoticed in Delhi as well. India considers the Maldives a strategically important country in its immediate periphery. In 1988, a group of Maldivians led by Abdullah Luthufi and assisted by about 80 armed mercenaries of a Sri Lankan secessionist organization, People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), attempted to overthrow the government of the island republic. Back then, President Gayoom was saved from the coup by inviting Indian forces to intervene. The then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi immediately sent 1,600 troops by air to restore order in the Maldives through “Operation Cactus”; an act that helped seal Indo-Maldivian relations. Since then, a defense pact has been signed between the two countries. With Islamic militancy on the rise in the 1400 island atoll state the last thing India would like to see is the Maldives descending into chaos and potentially shifting more towards Pakistan. The country has therefore aimed to mediate between the conflicting parties to resolve the crisis.

In another attempt to curb the current deadlock and prevent the country from descending into chaos, the government and opposition in Male have started a dialogue to ease tensions following the advice of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake. The escalating political rift in the Maldives may also cause problems for the country’s plans to host the 17th South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation Summit next year. It is to be noted that this recalls 2008, when the Maldives were scheduled to host the 16th SAARC summit in July, when the Government of Maldives was forced to pull out because the government was too busy with preparations for the October 2008 Presidential elections.

In many ways, President Mohamed Nasheed has come to be considered as the Maldives’s Obama. Just as Obama won the November 2008 US Presidential elections with his message of hope, President Mohammed Nasheed defeated the “regime” of the incumbent Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom with his message of the “Audacity of Hope”. President Mohamed Nasheed was highly educated, like Obama, since he studied at Oxford (and speaks with a marked Oxbridge accent). However, perhaps also like Obama, in many ways President Nasheed is considered far too liberal for a relatively conservative society such as that of the Maldives, populated by 300,000 Sunni Muslims. Things have not gone well so far. Now it remains to be seen whether President Nasheed will be able to bring his dissenters and opposition together in this young democratic nation without falling victim to internal struggles or external pressures.

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